Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kill Your Television

It's not that I believe everything I see on TV. If I was putting millions of dollars into a reality program, I'd damn well expect some professional writers on the payroll. Even documentaries are prone to exaggeration; people just don't act the same way when you put them in front of a camera. Still, it's a bummer to watch something meticulously staged being presented as real life. The Discovery Channel is in Granada doing a travel show for a series on Central America. Most of the show is a rundown on where to stay and what to see, but they also do some color pieces on the places they visit. One of the segments is going to be about baseball, Nicaragua's national pastime. Rather than go to a scheduled game, the TV crew decided it would be easier to just put on a game of their own.

I stumbled through my Sunday morning fog and met Stephan and Charlotte, a Dutch couple now volunteering in Granada and whom I had met last month in Antigua, at 9:30 in front of church near the mistress' house. It was one of the the many churches, now restored, that Walker had burned to the ground before leaving the city for the last time in 1856. A group of us had decided late Saturday night that it would make a nice Sunday outing to visit a village and watch the kids play some baseball for the Discovery people. The Dutch couple and some of the others at the party were volunteering at the village school, and the producer on the Discovery crew had asked their volunteer office to send some of the teachers as a cheering section for the kids.

I had imagined a little field behind the school and a grassy spot in the shade, a nice a place as anywhere to ride out a Mojito hangover. The village was a good 40 minute walk from town. Men and women of all ages were out on their rocking chairs, and the streets were full of people heading to the market or mass. The road was paved up to the cemetery with its magnificent granite tombs more comfortable looking than the shanties that straddled road starting where it changed to dirt. A pickup headed towards the village stopped to give us a lift, and we jumped into the truck bed. We got dropped off in front of a couple of corrugated shacks slouching amidst the trash drifts and a few hungry pigs. The camera crew was setting up behind their van on the side of the road, and they spun around to get an action shot shot of the hitch hiking gringos jumping out of a truck bed. The field was behind the shacks. There were no trees for shade, nor was there grass, or anything green for that matter on the dusty, uneven pasture mined with horse manure. There were four bases that barely stood out from above the droppings, and there were two faint chalk lines that ran from home plate to first and third bases. The only kids were watching from the sideline with their moms. The players on the field ranged from their late teens to early thirties, and they were wearing a hodgepodge of uniforms, some with local place names, most of the rest had filtered down from American high schools and AAU teams.

The sky was darkening from the direction of Lake Nicaragua. Sharp gusts strafed us with swirling, turgid dust clouds. The Discovery crew, not in the mood for a rain out, began to scramble. A camera man stood right behind the mound, and the producer choreographed the action. She arranged the outfield to fit in the shots and bunched the spectators together with the players on the sideline to give the appearance of a larger crowd than the 40 odd people who turned up. The group I was with was asked to cluster about 25 feet down the third baseline. We stood facing a second camera in shallow right field. We were dangerously close to hits down the line and pointed us directly into the onslaught of shit-dust. The producer peppered the field with instructions like a coach hitting fungo. Before opening her mouth, she seemed exasperated by the European cheering section (who were dumb enough to stand where she had placed them between home and third base).

"Does anyone here know anything about baseball?"

No response. The Europeans shuffled a little closer together.

"OK then. When the camera turns this way, I want you all to chant like this 'We want a pitcher, not a glass of water!'"

Fortunately, not wanting to take a line drive to the head, I had slinked away from the oncoming producer. I watched the rest of the filming with the pigs, in between the sheds where I had some shelter from the wind and dust and the embarrassment of those stupid cheers. After filming the crowd, the producer cut the top half of the inning in order to ensure some shots of the other team's defense ahead of the rain. Before they could be taught another painful chant, I convinced my friends it was time to leave. We were nearly back to town before the rains broke.

I learned afterwards that in addition to scheduling the game, Discovery had donated money for the uniforms. Intended for the school kids, the proceeds made their way to the fathers and elder sons and the result was the two motley dressed teams slinging bats and losing grounders in the dust. No doubt Discovery scored a segment infinitely more palatable than the ball scratching and rum drinking they would have gotten had they showed up unannounced.

There was an interesting article in the paper this morning witha brief sketch of baseball's history in Nicaragua. Nicaraguans have played baseball for over a century, yet the country has only produced nine (according to the article) major leaguers. The writer concluded that the lack of developmental infrastructure makes it almost impossible to cultivate local talent. I guess in this regard the pasture provided a realistic view of the state of the Nicaraguan game. With all the money MLB pours into scouting and player development, this country would seem seem an ideal place for a baseball academy. Vincente Padilla, who might be the only active Nicaraguan in MLB, has just agreed to donate a portion of his new contract for a foundation that will promote Nicaraguan youth in sports. Good for him.

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